Learnings from Harvard University: How Not to Manage an Issue

On October 7th, the world witnessed a horrific attack on Israel and massacre of its people by Hamas, a terrorist group funded and backed by Iran. Nearly two weeks later, we have heard mostly unified messages of support for Israel to defend itself from such atrocities, and the denouncement of Hamas and its terrorist actions. Yet instead of denouncing terrorism and the brutal torture and murders of Israelis, more than thirty student groups at Harvard signed a letter blaming Israel for the horrific attack and massacre. The school’s public response has been slow and tepid, and they’re now facing a serious, reputation management issue. It’s a pure case study in issues mismanagement and how to quickly escalate an issue to a crisis as a result. So what happened?

First let’s dig into the student letter penned on October 8th. An excerpt reads, “We hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence. Today’s events did not occur in a vacuum. In the coming days, Palestinians will be forced to bear the full brunt of Israel’s violence.” The student groups, exercising freedom of speech and advancing the culture wars that prevail on many of today’s US university campuses, should have prompted a swift university reaction.

In the students’ joint letter, they hold Israel responsible for being attacked by terrorists. Free speech is a beautiful part of our nation, but it should be exercised with deep knowledge of the issue on which you’re speaking out. Know the position you’re taking and why. The students took a position that is largely uninformed on the region’s complex and lengthy history. It’s also an anti-Semitic posture and fully lacking in basic human empathy. So by applying values and purpose as a screen for response, the university should have immediately crafted their position and enacted a complete stakeholder engagement and reputation management plan. But I don’t think that’s what they did based on how the timeline has unfolded to date.

A Quick Look at the Timeline of Events* Effective October 20th:

  • October 7th: Palestinian terrorist group Hamas (funded and backed by Iran) invaded Israel where they slaughtered and tortured innocent civilians, including children and elderly, and took others hostage. Following, Israel declared war and launched “Operation Swords of Iron,” striking targets in Gaza that are Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets.
  • October 8th: A collective of student groups referring to themselves as “Harvard Palestine Solidarity Groups” penned a statement in which they blamed Israel for the attack on its nation. They called on the Harvard community to take action and stop the annihilation of Palestinians. The letter was written by Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee and signed by 30 other student groups. The student letter was shared on social media and spread rapidly, receiving criticism from thought leaders, alumni, elected officials, and business leaders. That’s when the backlash began, and when Harvard needed to move into issues management mode. With strong issues management, the expectation is three-fold: 1) Strong, overarching message; 2) Relevant response timing, within 6-12 hours; 3) Accountability statement of what Harvard will do moving forward to dialogue / discuss / champion resolution of differing views toward resolution. Harvard mismanaged all three and sat silent.
  • October 9th: Former Harvard University President, Larry Summers, posted on X, “I have never been as disillusioned and alienated as I am ” Summers also criticized the silence from Harvard’s leadership, which “has allowed Harvard to appear at best neutral toward acts of terror against the Jewish state of Israel.” He is clearly a stakeholder and influencer, so Harvard missed an opportunity to engage and understand his point-of-view.
  • October 10th: Billionaire hedge fund manager, Bill Ackman, a Harvard Business School Alumni, called on Harvard to release the student names of those who signed the letter so his companies could blacklist Other CEOs followed suit and asked for the names. Ackman and other CEOs requests for names sparked a debate on social media about cancel culture and free speech. On this same day, Harvard issued a statement from its President, Claudine Gay, in which she personally condemned “the terrorist atrocities perpetuated by Hamas.” She also attempted to distinguish between the students and university, saying “while our students have the right to speak for themselves, no student group – not even 30 student groups – speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.” (Note: This was the first public statement by Harvard, two full days after the student statement was released.)
  • October 11th: A digital billboard appeared on Harvard’s campus calling the student groups anti-semitic. Some student groups who originally co-signed the letter withdrew their signatures.
  • October 12th ongoing: Business leaders cut ties with Harvard, withdrawing financial commitments. This includes the Wexner Foundation, which has given over $250 million to Wexner Foundation, and wrote a letter to the school to formally end their relationship.
  • October 14th: Students demonstrated against Israel’s counter-offense and accused Harvard of not doing enough to support Palestinian students.
  • Other noteworthy events / actions: More than 350 Harvard faculty members signed an open letter to school leadership criticizing Harvard’s “tepid response to Hamas war crimes.” Congresswoman, Elise Stefanik (R-NY), calls on Claudine Gay to step down as university president. Harvard graduates send a letter criticizing the school’s response to the student group’s statement, saying “This statement is abhorrent, and we demand that you immediately condemn it publicly and clarify that Harvard University strongly opposes this dangerous antisemitism.”

The issue would have been far easier to manage with some emotional intelligence, savvy, and grounding in values and purpose. They also needed to activate a full-scale issues management approach, including stakeholder engagement, internal and external communications, to tell their story. The university’s responses to date, and their overall mismanagement of the issue, reveals a clear lack of issues management wherewithal.

Here are some key learnings to apply to any brand, business, and academic institution facing a rising issue, using Harvard as an example of what it should have done in early days, and could certainly still do in crisis mode. Although once you let an issue escalate to crisis, it is far more difficult and costly to manage.

  1. Review your current issues plan now, and if you don’t have one, build one. Like a fire drill, you want to have a base plan, ready-to-go, for an emergency situation. In today’s rapid communication cycles, it is not a matter of IF you will face some sort of issue or crisis, it is a matter of WHEN you will. These events are swift, always catch unprepared leaders off guard, and cycle quickly. The Harvard case study should be a reason to dust off your current plan, and / or build a new one.
  2. Watch for signals of an issue on the rise. Harvard had a big signal. The War was underway and they had 30 student groups take a strong position that was predictably going to draw divisive attention and escalate. There may have been earlier signals of unrest among students prior to the Hamas attack, as well, I don’t have visibility to that. A good issues management approach involves keeping a pulse on all your stakeholders and ensuring you know everyone’s position and sentiment at all times.
  3. Practice Your plan. As mentioned, like fire drills, it’s good to practice your plan and make sure your team is aligned and ready-to-go at a moment’s notice. This is a key learning for all brands. Spend time understanding vulnerabilities and draft a plan that includes all key advisors, decision-makers, and third-parties. Make sure you have shared commitment for activation. In Harvard’s situation, a student letter that has potential to gain wide public attention and debate, this might include a head of student services, the university president, donor and alumni relations, and potentially student leadership. Everyone noted on the plan needs to understand that they will need to be accessible at all hours to convene and begin to work the plan.
  4. Re-validate or draft your messaging so everyone is on the same page. Message development is a very aligning exercise, and often reveals gaps in both values and strategy. In Harvard’s case, they should review their university values and purpose and remind all on the issues management team that these should be a guide and compass for decision-making. They also should have aligned (or understood why they don’t align) with how most world leaders were talking about the events in the Middle East. Most world leaders have said that the terrorist actions of Hamas have no justification, no legitimacy, and must be universally condemned. Further, Israel has the right to defend its people against such atrocities. So that’s a good starting point to challenge internal thinking and discuss whether you agree with these public positions. If you don’t agree, understand why you’ve taken a particular posture and have the research and explanation to back it. And I can’t emphasize enough the need to screen everything through your organization values and purpose AND your personal values and purpose as leaders. If something feels off, challenge it. If Harvard stands for world peace, they should be able to take a clear stand against a terrorist attack on innocent civilians. It’s that simple.
  5. Proactively reach out to influencers and stakeholders. Harvard should have proactively (on October 8th) reached out to their stakeholders – donors, alumni, former university leadership, and groups like the Wexner Foundation. They could have shared their draft positioning and gained alignment on it prior to issuance. And, while no longer proactive outreach, they need to engage (publicly or privately) with those who have spoken out against their positioning to listen, learn, take a hit, and give themselves the ability to course correct.
  6. Stay fluid and responsive, constantly measuring and adjusting to sentiment while applying strong emotional intelligence. Issues are fluid, so an organization’s response needs to be fluid as well. To accomplish this, set up a standing meeting for leaders to meet and update each other on a frequent cadence. In your working plan, every member of the crisis team should have accountability for reporting data points from stakeholders, monitoring opinion and sentiment, noting impact on business and operations, and more. Set the meeting cadence based on issue stage and management. In the early days of COVID-19, we held and led a 7AM daily call with the crisis team, then we lightened the cadence as we properly managed the issue. Outside-looking-in, Harvard isn’t engaging on social media with critics and detractors, and this sends a very dangerous message to stakeholders. They’re playing a defensive posture, responding “as needed,” which isn’t keeping pace with the volume or sentiment of perspectives on this subject. It’s also clear that despite requests from alumni, elected officials, and donors, Harvard still dug in and refused to issue additional, clarifying statements and taking responsibility for their prior lackluster response.
  7. Mediate and repair relationships with honesty and accountability. All organizations need to accept responsibility for mismanagement, poor decisions, and Take the hit and relationship repair can begin.

At this point, as the War rages on. There is still time for Harvard to have a better approach to managing this reputation issue, which will continue to persist for the immediate to mid-term. We will stay-tuned.

Sources: Harvard.edu, Business Insider, CNN, FOX News, The Harvard Crimson, Aljazerra.com

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Learnings from Harvard University: How Not to Manage an Issue

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